Thursday, March 21, 2013

What does it mean to talk about "impact"?

I recently spent some time reviewing Richard Heeks' 2010 article on ICT and impact assessment.

Heeks, R. (2010) "How do ICTs contribute to development?" Journal of International Development (22): 625-640.

In his editorial, Heeks notes that "impact" as a focus for ICT4D has been under-emphasized in much of the work done to date and introduces a value chain model to help identify four domains of interest in development work:

readiness >> availability >> uptake >>  impact

The model is helpful to consider when thinking about the appropriate focus for any study that is grappling with long term sustainability of ICT initiatives.

In the case of our project dealing with low-cost, widely available ICTs we can assume to some degree that "readiness" and "uptake" domains are somewhat spoken for.  In other words, by definition our project looks at ICTs such as mobile phones or radio broadcasting that a priori exhibit high states of readiness and availability among the population.

However, on the backend of the those technologies we still need to do more work to further define readiness and availability with respect to FOSS platforms that work with those ICTs.  In our case this involves platforms like FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, or FreedomFone.

Our project also takes a Communities of Practice (CoP) approach, which means an emphasis on "uptake" of ICTs and these FOSS platforms within these communities.  Heeks says uptake happens when "access to the technology is turned into actual usage" (p. 627).  Many communities of practice (I suspect) are not even aware of the FOSS platforms that might be useful for them, let alone being able to access to start to use those platforms.

This suggests to me that we need to develop rich descriptions of the social practices within those CoPs to begin to identify points of readiness and opportunities for uptake.  Our Social Practices Working Group and Radio Case Study Working Group will be both be involved in field research that we hope will produce some rich descriptions that will help us along that path.  Moreover, we hope that the planning and processes that go into that field work will help us to develop a toolkit of sorts that we can give to the communities themselves, to enable them to undertake self-assessments when it comes to identifying opportunities for enhancing their knowledge mobilization practices with low cost ICTs.

Impact is the the final domain in Heeks' value chain model, and he suggests it can be measured in three related dimensions: outputs, outcomes, and development impacts (p. 627).  For my part, I think about this as short term, medium term, and long term impacts.  Short term impact in the case of our project is to somehow identify if the the low cost ICT actually do "enhance" knowledge mobilization, or at least hold a reasonable potential to do so.  How we measure that "enhancement" is something we need to continue to explore as a research team.  I suspect it will have socio-technical dimensions.

To speak of medium term impacts in the case of our project is, in my first thoughts about it, is to look at how uptake of low-cost ICT and FOSS platforms within a community of practice can improve capacity for innovation within that CoP.  In other words, how does actual usage lead to members of that community taking innovation into their own hands?"  We need to do more work to think about how that can be identified and assessed in the context of this project.

Finally, to speak of long term impact in our project is to consider wider development objectives such as improved livelihoods, positive changes in gender equity, and advances in sustainable agricultural practices that result from enhanced knowledge mobilization.  Of course as we move into this type of impact it gets more complicated to assess and the findings less certain.  However, we are hoping that we can look to short and medium term impacts with uptake of low cost ICTs as promising results for long term development objectives in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

The bottom line, for me anyway, is to align the real needs of these communities with simple, low cost ICT solutions that they can manage themselves.  The exciting thing is that the FOSS platforms like FrontlineSMS make this possible in theory.  We need now to move beyond theory to explore practice.

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